Cycling from Clarendon to Rosslyn: The Danger Spots
The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is filled with cyclists. Unfortunately, it requires a bit of work to navigate safely.
Arlington is, as has been noted previously, an oasis of bike friendliness when compared to near by jurisdictions (cough, Fairfax, cough). However, even Arlington sometimes comes up short. This is the unfortunate case along one of Arlington’s most travelled routes – Ballston to Rosslyn. As any regular rider knows, there are a few particular spots along that route that demand careful attention for safe passage. While the details may be mundane, the big picture is important: careful navigation of these intersections is important to the personal safety of any cyclist in the area.
The trip from Ballston starts out well enough – Fairfax Drive has wide bike lanes and less traffic than Wilson Boulevard. For this reason, it’s a recommended route on the Arlington County Bike Map. Unfortunately, those bike lanes disappear at the intersection of Fairfax Drive and 1oth Street (in front of GMU Law School). The expectation (as marked out on the map) is that cyclists will continue along Fairfax Drive by taking a left. This puts the cyclist on the street that is more often thought of as the place where you park when you drive to Northside Social. While this street is far preferable to Wilson Boulevard (which gets very narrow at this point), it leaves a cyclist with a confusing array of options at the end. Since the street ends in a U-turn, a cyclist is asked to 1) transition to a sidewalk, 2) cross a one-way street that invites high-speed turns by cars, and 3) somehow move back into the street by one of two cross-walks on the other side. This set of choices leads to so much uncertainty – not only on the part of cyclists, but also pedestrians and drivers – that an inherently unsafe intersection is the result. It’s not clear what the rules of the road are here, so any cyclist passing through this intersection is well-advised to assume nothing and proceed very carefully.
The next tricky spot on the trip is almost the opposite of the last – it’s predictable in its danger, and is almost always the result of a clear violation of the rules of the road. As a cyclist proceeds down Clarendon Boulevard, the hill down to Courthouse starts just after passing Fillmore Street. Unfortunately, this also marks the start of a segment of Clarendon Boulevard in which a cyclist must simultaneously watch for: 1) car doors being flung open into the bike lane; 2) Whole Foods-destined left-turners creating traffic that darts into the right lane; and 3) Starbucks-focused drivers who don’t think twice about cutting off anyone else to get to their beverage of choice. It’s a test for anyone – driver or cyclist – on that stretch of road. But the stakes are higher for cyclists, who should make themselves visible and predictable while passing through here.
The final spot is the one for which there seems no easy solution – the transition at the bottom of Rosslyn from Lynn Street (or the Custis Trail) to the Key Bridge (or Mount Vernon Trail). This intersection is almost the perfect storm of conflict – exit ramps from freeways, high-volume pedestrian traffic, and bikes approaching from every direction, on and off the street. All, of course, are legitimate users of this intersection. Unfortunately, there’s a daily demonstration there that plenty of each kind of user assumes themselves to be superior to the other two. Until all of the government entities involved with that intersection – Arlington County, Virginia Department of Transportation, and the National Park Service – cooperate to come up with a design that better separates these users, cyclists are well advised to be keenly observant and err on the side of yielding. That advice may rub some the wrong way, but it’s better to be alive and annoyed than dead and right.
In fact, that may well be the guiding principle for most of these intersections.